As California drought persists, federal aid begins to flow

Bee Washington BureauFebruary 4, 2014 

— The Agriculture Department on Tuesday offered new aid to water-starved California farmers, while lawmakers tussled over competing anti-drought proposals.

Underscoring how California's water crisis has reached a political boil, top federal and state officials jointly announced the relatively modest new package of aid that features $20 million for agricultural water conservation efforts. Additional aid for California will be announced by the Forest Service on Thursday.

"This is really designed to pump resources into problem solving," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "We expect and anticipate that this is the first of a number of (aid) announcements."

Accompanied by Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Vilsack announced the funding for which California farmers can apply. Grants will be provided for projects that could include improving irrigation efficiency, planting cover crops and protecting grazing lands, among other efforts.

"While we're all praying for rain, we can use all the help we can get," Costa said.

Officials opened up the aid taps precisely as the Republican-controlled House prepared to approve on Wednesday an ambitious California water package tailored for Central Valley irrigation districts. The House bill authorizes several new dams, repeals a San Joaquin River restoration program and steers water from fish to farmers.

There's little doubt the House will approve the GOP water bill, introduced by freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and based largely on a controversial bill previously authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. There's also little doubt that key elements will subsequently sink in the Senate, where California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have already vigorously denounced the House measure.

California Gov. Jerry Brown also opposes the House bill as an "unwelcome and divisive intrusion." At the same time, the House push has seemed to motivate senators and administration officials to bounce back with alternatives. It did not seem a coincidence that the Agriculture Department aid was announced on the eve of House action.

In a similar happenstance, top state and federal water officials set Wednesday for a Sacramento briefing on drought responses. A Feinstein bill is expected within days.

"You have to act," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said Tuesday, as if addressing California's senators. "If you don't like the bill we send, then tell us what you do support so we can go to conference and get something done. But stop ignoring a problem."

Echoing the common GOP theme, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., declared that "all we have heard is lip service from the senators from California."

"We have farmers and farm workers who are out of work," Nunes said Tuesday. "Now we are in an all-out emergency."

Republican leaders propelled the House bill onto a quick legislative path, scheduling the 68-page package for a vote without a hearing and within a week of it being introduced. Unlike a typical bill, it lacks a committee report offering explanations, background and budget estimates.

The leadership-controlled House Rules Committee on Tuesday considered 17 proposed Democratic amendments, allowing votes on eight. The array of proposed amendments illustrated the regional as well as partisan split caused by the House bill, with several jointly authored by lawmakers outside the San Joaquin Valley.

"This bill in its current form upsets virtually every water contract in California," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, who represents a district largely north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Dubbed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, the House measure limits part of a landmark 1992 law that directed more water to protect the delta. It removes wild-and-scenic protections from a half-mile of the Merced River in order to potentially expand McClure Reservoir. It lengthens federal irrigation contracts and preempts some state law.

In a jab aimed directly at Feinstein, who worked for several years to win approval of the current San Joaquin River restoration program, the House measure repeals the expensive effort and replaces it with something much smaller. Acting on their own, within the authority of existing law, federal officials on Monday announced they were suspending restoration release of San Joaquin River water through 2015.

The reporter can be reached at can be reached at (202) 383-0006, mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or @MichaelDoyle10 on Twitter.

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